David Kaplan: My experience traveling by plane during coronavirus pandemic

David Kaplan: My experience traveling by plane during coronavirus pandemic

My motto, one I have tattooed on my right arm, is “LIVE LIFE ALL IN.”

In the middle of a pandemic, and at a time when all of us have taken stock of what’s really important in our lives, my wife Mindy and I decided we still wanted to go on vacation like we do every summer.

Take that, COVID-19.

We wanted to do something fun and different. Of course, that meant following every guideline and taking every precaution. That meant being exceedingly careful and cautious.

It also meant getting on an airplane.

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As we all deal with the global pandemic of the novel coronavirus that has dominated our lives for the past four months, regular parts of our routines have disappeared virtually overnight. Dinners out have been non-existent since mid-March. Run-of-the-mill trips to the grocery store are now fraught with nervousness. Putting gas in our cars requires extra care, because we have no idea who may have used the pump before we touched it.

Hand sanitizer is a necessity throughout the day as we all try to stay safe and healthy. The air travel industry, once a regular part of many people’s lives, has ground nearly to a halt with most companies ceasing non-essential travel for their employees. People doing all they can to minimize their risk of exposure, and the staggering numbers of people who have seen their careers dramatically financially impacted during the pandemic, have combined to sink leisure travel to record-low levels, as well.

So, my wife and I decided to take a long road trip, given the rare opportunity of having no live sports to cover and the return of the NBA, MLB and NHL scheduled for the end of July. The plan: We’d fly one way to California, then rent a car and drive back to Chicago from the west coast. 

While we were nervous to make the trip, we did our best to protect ourselves by assembling our version of a COVID-19 protection kit, which included antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer, rubber gloves (which we don’t normally use when we are not traveling) and a handful of masks. We also consulted with my brother Bruce, who is an eye surgeon, his wife Wendi, who is an internist, and a close friend who is the head of infectious diseases at a large Chicago-area hospital.

Professional teams and top-end college programs never fly commercial. They travel by charter, which should go a long way towards keeping players safer than the average person, who might find themselves on multiple planes and navigating through multiple airports during a trip. The NBA, as we all know, will be in a “bubble” of sorts in Orlando, but players are planning to travel to the campus by charter, thereby limiting their exposure to other passengers. The league and its teams will be handling travel from the airport to the Disney World bubble site with pre-screened drivers to minimize players’ exposure to strangers.

Now, keep in mind that I normally fly a lot throughout the year. Broadcasting college basketball games means I am on a plane almost every weekend of the season. Crowded airports and crowded planes are the norm. So when we arrived at the airport on Monday afternoon, we had no idea what to expect upon entering the terminal. While it felt significantly different to take this journey at this time, would it look different? 

The first thing I noticed was that no curbside luggage check-in was available. That was no big deal, but as I looked around, it really was a ghost town. O’Hare in the middle of a workday has always been a scene of organized chaos, but this time there were very few people around. The security lines were short and everyone we saw was wearing a mask. 

OK, the first concern we had (masks) was answered, and in a positive way.

Security was a breeze, and as we surveyed the scene, we couldn’t believe how clean the airport looked. I mean, incredibly clean. Nothing was out of place. Many of the more popular restaurants were closed, and the ones that were open had limited menus and everything — and I mean, everything — from plastic forks and knives to salt and pepper packets were either wrapped in plastic or unavailable to the public. If you chose to sit down for a meal (we did not), there was a complete lack of salt and pepper shakers on any of the tables, and every server was masked. Almost every store we walked past other than the convenience store in each terminal was closed.

There appeared to be good effort towards social distancing, and in the gate area people appeared to be wearing masks unless they were eating or drinking something. As they called for boarding for our United Airlines flight to Denver, Mindy and I looked at each other, took a deep breath, made sure our masks were on correctly and got ready to board. Planes are now not boarding by group number. Instead, it’s being done by small groups based on your assigned row. United did an excellent job of reminding passengers of the importance of social distancing during the boarding process, and there were several announcements about the mask requirement. In fact, United had made it clear to us on the phone a couple of days before our departure date that wearing a mask was a requirement to travel with them.

From there, the airline handed out antibacterial wipes to every passenger as they boarded to wipe down our seat, armrests, tray table and seat belts. We already had our own wipes with us, because we did not feel that one wipe was enough to fully clean all areas of our space. We also brought our own hand sanitizer to wash our hands after we wiped down our area. Flight attendants made numerous trips up and down the aisle to collect any garbage so that none of the used wipes accumulated anywhere.

My brother Bruce had previously advised us to wear safety goggles that protect the entire eye, because COVID-19 can enter the body through the eyes via respiratory droplets. We saw many people wearing sunglasses for the same reason, but as Dr. Bruce told us, sunglasses don’t protect the sides of your eyes — only the front. I took his advice and had gone to Home Depot the morning of our flight to purchase safety goggles, but was told they were close to sold out. Apparently, a lot of people beginning to brave air travel were wearing them for the same reason. So I hustled over to Aisle 17, scooped up two of three pairs left on the shelf like they were bricks of gold and headed to the checkout. A contactless checkout experience made me start to feel like we could actually pull this off.

The United Airlines flight held 138 seats. Ninety-six of them were taken, and most middle seats were empty, so we felt comfortable in our own small pseudo-bubble trying to stay safe. The plane was unusually quiet. People stayed in their seats and just a few got up to use the lavatories. We had brought our own snacks (we live a low-carb lifestyle, so we didn’t take the high-carb “snack pack” of chips and cookies that was offered to all passengers). The plane was incredibly clean. United did a wonderful job at managing a tough situation and we felt safe and secure that they had done all they could to protect everyone on board. 

Yes, it was weird to be sitting on a plane in the middle of a pandemic wearing a mask, safety goggles and washing my hands multiple times during the flight. And people did keep to themselves much more than I’m used to based on the dozens of flights I have taken over the past couple of years. There wasn’t a lot of chit-chat. But when we landed, we felt that we had been able to keep ourselves from any compromising situation. 

Now, I understand that is not enough to guarantee we don’t contract the virus, but if you are super vigilant about the situations you put yourself in, and take this very seriously, you can protect yourself to the best of your ability. From our experience, the airline did all it could to try and keep its passengers safe.

As our pilot announced we were preparing to land, he also reminded everyone to not attempt to deplane until the row in front of us had cleared at least six feet from us. People stayed orderly and waited their turn to gather their belongings from the overhead storage bin before deplaning. One additional change: Those that gate-checked a bag couldn’t deplane and had to remain seated until their bag was retrieved, brought to the jetway, and their name was called.

All in all, it was a solid experience, and we felt safe. Now, let’s hope it stays that way, so that when we look back on this trip, Mindy and I can truly say: Take That, COVID-19!


Why Cubs GM Jed Hoyer thinks a playoff bubble could be in MLB's 'best interest'

Why Cubs GM Jed Hoyer thinks a playoff bubble could be in MLB's 'best interest'

Instituting an MLB “bubble” for the postseason would make sense to Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer.

“The first round this year, you would just travel once,” he said Monday. “But once you get into later rounds and sometimes, you're traveling multiple times a week. And I think what we've learned so far is that travel is a difficult part of this.”

Less than three weeks into the regular season, MLB has dealt with outbreaks on two different teams. The first positive COVID-19 tests in both the Marlins’ and Cardinals’ outbreaks were taken on the road. MLB has already committed to an expanded 16-team postseason. So, the question becomes, if Major League Baseball can make it to the postseason, how can it increase its chances of finishing the playoffs?

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Other leagues have had success with quarantined bubbles. Last week, the NHL announced zero positive COVID-19 tests since its teams reported to the league's two hub cities. 

Both the National Women's Soccer League and Major League Soccer had teams drop out of their tournaments before competition began, due to team outbreaks. But the NWSL completed a month-long tournament without a COVID-19 case in its Utah bubble, and MLS' participating teams have produced all negative tests since July 10. 

The WNBA has not had a positive COVID-19 test since the initial round of testing, as players arrived at the clean site. Last week, the NBA reported its third consecutive batch of weekly tests without a new positive.

"We're only as good as our weakest link," Hoyer said. "And this thing spreads."

Even just this weekend there were examples of players and teams violating health and safety protocols.

Cleveland pitcher Zach Plesac  left the team hotel to go out in Chicago during the team’s series against the White Sox.

The A’s and Astros had a benches-clearing brawl after Houston pitcher Humberto Castellanos hit Oakland’s Roman Laureano with a pitch. It was the third time that Laureano had been hit in the series and second time in that game.

From the Astros dugout, hitting coach Alex Cintrón began jawing back and forth with Laureano, until Laureano charged. The benches cleared.

“Frustrations are going to boil over,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “… As a coach, we have to contain our emotions, a little more than probably the players. Players do the best they can, but as coaches we have to stay professional in every aspect.”

Both incidents happened after Major League Baseball tightened health and safety protocols and postponed the Cubs’ weekend series at St. Louis in response to more positive COVID-19 tests from the Cardinals. The Cardinals have played an MLB-low five games due to their coronavirus outbreak. At least 16 St. Louis players and staff members have tested positive.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he believed there was still time for the Cardinals to play enough games to be considered a “credible competitor.” Whether they can fit a whole 60-game schedule in remains in question.

“I think there's going to be real decisions about how to reschedule those games and what to do,” Hoyer said. “But at this point I think that the focus is on making sure that those guys are all healthy, the staff and players, and stopping the spread. And who knows how long it’s going to take.

“I think we all expected to play this weekend, and now, I don't know if they'll be able to play Thursday, Friday or until after the weekend. So, at this point there's no point in speculating (on if the league would shut down a team) because we just don't know when they're going to be able to take the field.”

A few hours later, MLB announced that the Cardinals' Thursday doubleheader against the Tigers had been postponed.

The regular season hurdles continue, even without the kind of back-and forth travel that comes with the playoffs.

“With buses and planes and hotel rooms and smaller club houses, things like that,” Hoyer said of travel, “I think it's that that's been a challenge. And a challenge the league is trying to address, but still a challenge nonetheless. And so I think a bubble situation for the playoffs could be in the best interest to make sure that those games are played and that the right players are on the field deciding it.”



Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Cubs’ Ian Happ claimed center field after AAA detour: 'He's the real deal'

Ian Happ paused before answering, the moment of silence punctuating his matter-of-fact response.

“No,” he said. “I don’t feel that way.”

Looking back, he doesn’t feel like he rose to the Major Leagues too quickly.

Happ has had to field that question since spending 2/3 of last season in Triple-A. But already this year, Happ has hit three home runs, tied for the most on the team, while also maintain a top-three batting average (.297). Not only is he performing on the field, Happ has also embraced a leadership role and taken over for Kris Bryant as the team’s MLBPA representative.

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“He’s the real deal,” Ross said Sunday, after Happ went 3-for-3 with two doubles in the Cubs’ intrasquad scrimmage.

The club’s decision to send Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the beginning of last season came as a surprise. Much of Happ’s conviction that he was ready for the major leagues when he debuted came from his standout rookie season.

Happ hit 24 home runs as a rookie – still his career high – and finished eighth in rookie of the year voting in 2017. His batting average regressed the next year (from .253 to .233), and his strikeout number rose (from 129 to 167). But he joined the .350 club in on-base percentage.

“We believed then and we believe now that he’s going to be a really good player,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this week. “We thought it was the right move and something that was necessary even though it was really unpleasant to send him back there. To his credit, he made the absolute most of it, took personal responsibility.”

When Happ returned to the big leagues, his progress showed. He won NL player of the week in the final week of the season. But he’s made even more of a splash this year, from Spring Training through the first two weeks of the regular season.

Entering the year, center field was one of the main position battles to monitor for first-time manager Ross.

“Right now, the job is Ian Happ’s,” Ross said Sunday.

Ross’ lineup choices had suggested as much already. Happ has appeared in all 13 of the Cubs games, at least pinch hitting in the three he didn’t start.

“It’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Ross said of the switch-hitter. “The guy’s swinging the bat really well, and his right-handed at-bats have gotten tremendously better. He’s been a staple.”

Happ started his season off with a two-run home run in his first plate appearance. He was batting ninth, and through all of Ross’ reshuffling of the bottom third of the batting order, Happ has been the Cubs’ most frequent nine-hole hitter.

With the Cubs’ No. 7 and 8 hitters consistently getting on base, in the nine-hole has showcased Happ’s ability to drive in runs (he’s tied for second on the team with six RBI) or set the table for the Cubs’ unconventional top of the order.

“I feel great about where I'm at right now,” Happ said, “my ability to help the team and get on base for those guys that are hitting behind me.”

Just as he set the tone in the batter’s box early, with an Opening Day home run, Happ flashed some leather in the opening series against the Brewers. Three days into the season, Happ tracked a long fly ball back to the wall. He leaped and caught it just before his back slammed into the ivy, which barely cushioned the brick behind it.

Happ slid down the wall into a crouch, his body no doubt feeling the results of the impact. But it wasn’t long before he stood back up.

“I think he absolutely took advantage of his time down (in Iowa),” Epstein said, “and is in a different and better phase in his career now because of what he went through.”